War Powers

I don’t blog much, if at all, about politics but I spend a lot of time thinking about it. Recently, someone told me that members of my generation don’t care or know anything about politics. I was aghast at the suggestion but upon reflection I think I can understand where he was coming from: having grown up in an environment of growing disenfranchisement leads to a belief that it’s impossible to effect change, even if you think you know what to change. I don’t even remember a time when congressional districts weren’t gerrymandered beyond recognition or when incumbency was unassailable. Unless something changes, my little brother will only vote in presidential elections where untrustworthy electronic voting systems are the norm.

Despite all of that, however, I vote every chance I get. Jennifer and I study for elections, usually reserving most of a weekend beforehand to pore over the hundred-plus pages of voter information booklets that get shipped to every California voter. We spend time researching, trying to pick the best person for the job, peering through the morass of private interest and political machinations and not always coming away feeling like we really understand all that’s at stake. I’ve never voted a straight party ticket in my life, mostly because I don’t think anyone really has all the answers. I expect my elected representatives to duke it out to a good compromise. I want the kind of slow, deliberative government that leaves everyone slightly bruised and no-one very happy.

And I worry a lot about the health of the fourth estate. I’m something of an NPR junkie and my favorite show is without a doubt On The Media. It says something about me that I’m not sure I want to acknowledge that I try to make sure I’m by a radio every Sunday a 2pm to hear it. Even though I already get the podcast.

Which is why the administration’s saber rattling toward Iran scares the living shit out of me. The Senate can’t seem to shake its limp-wristed, morally-equivocting response to the last war while an executive that couldn’t be bothered to plan for the aftermath of a war of choice attempts to foment another. The disastrous consequences of our failure to win the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan brings me close to tears. We’ve shattered hundreds of thousands of lives, returned Afghanistan to the warlordism and feudalism which gave rise to the Taliban in the first place, and wrought untold damage in Iraq. It was our responsibility to ensure law and order after ousting the existing regimes of these countries. This isn’t the America that liberated Germany, this is the America that fucked Guatemala for half a century and overthrew an elected democracy in Iran. That overthrow, incidentally, has led us into a trumped-up “conflict” with a bruised, malignant, and blighted society next door to an American quagmire. It frightens me that Bush administration shows no signs of wanting to understand the causes of Iranian intransigence toward American foreign policy dictates. One can only imagine the lack of perspective and historical context in the discussions surrounding American/Iranian policy. The Bush administration wants influence in the mideast and something, anything to draw attention away from 30% approval ratings and a war that is now receiving something that might one day resemble congressional oversight.

Those are both pretty thin reasons to go laying the groundwork for yet another conflict in a region that is both critical to our national interest and growing more unstable by the day. As Juan Cole keeps pointing out, the agro directed in the general direction of Tehran doesn’t even make any sense. And it’s not like there are any good policy options for a president intent on trying to bully Iran anyway. Sure, there might be some purely military options that would perhaps be available to the US given that we’ve now got permanent bases in Iraq, but as James Fallows has illustrated, none of them actually make policy sense. Which is why congress needs to find its hands and then use them to find its ass, and quick. Spun the right way, the over-broad authorization of force against Iraq could be twisted to justify limited tactical strikes against Iran. When it blows out of proportion (as it inevitably would), will congress have the cojones to say no? I doubt it. They can’t even get to a debate on a freaking non-binding resolution against a horribly unpopular war backed principally by a lame-duck president with approval ratings not seen since the Carter administration. Even with elections looming. Such is the jingoistic power of potentially being seen as “weak on defense” or “not supporting the troops”.

And so the media fails us again, the administration makes allegations that aren’t even plausible, and the attention that should be directed to a thousand other places gets focused on what can only be described as the wrong things. How long can our flirtation with authoritarian incompetence last? And what will we pay in the decades to come for our duplicitous national arrogance and cowardly ignorance?


  1. Posted February 13, 2007 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    If you (dis) like politics you might enjoy (or be horrified by) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manufacturing_Consent:_Noam_Chomsky_and_the_Media.

    Good stuff. .I’d say I don’t know anything about politics but being that I live where I live I can’t seem to escape these discussions.

  2. Posted February 13, 2007 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Wow, great writeup. Well spoken.

  3. Posted February 13, 2007 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Damn, kudos.

    The only thing more painful than paying attention to the sprawling trainwreck of our foreign policy is not paying attention and allowing this to perpetuate.

  4. David
    Posted February 14, 2007 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    There is an excellent review of a book on military history in the current New Yorker (Feb 12) which makes a comparison between colonial wars and the war in Iraq. I Can’t resist digging this tidbit up from


    Texas Republican congressman Ron Paul alleged that part of the reason for the war was to maintain “Dollar hegemony.” Before the war, Hussein had planned to require Euros
    for all petroleum sales. That was bad for the dollar, since it lacks
    the backing by gold or silver which it had historically, and demand for
    dollars to purchase oil helped to support its market value. After the
    war began, the Americans quickly returned Iraq petroleum sales from
    Euros to “Petrodollars.”

  5. Robert Johnston
    Posted February 14, 2007 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Hear, hear.

    As a UK resident it’s hugely embarassing to me to have to see Blair, pretty much alone in the world, up BushAdmin’s collective ass on this one again.

    Unfortunately, though, hypocrisy, doublespeak and downright malevolent intent are the way pretty much all governments play the foreign policy game. Bush et al are just a lot more brazen about it.

    Agreed with Ryan — do whatever you can. Write to your representatives, blog about the situation, whatever. There are two global superpowers: the US gov and public opinion.

  6. Posted February 14, 2007 at 8:17 am | Permalink


  7. Kit Russell
    Posted February 14, 2007 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I must say I agree with you.  The only question in my mind is:
    What foreign policy?
      Today we have no unifying principles from which we act as a nation.  We lurch from one set of crises to another, with half-hearted stabs  at ‘democracy’ without seriously preparing other societies to understand the foundations of the rule of law and other ‘liberal’ democratic ideals.  When peoples do yearn to be free, and try to work in civil ways, we tend to turn our backs on  the indigenous democrats ( see Egypt and China).  They go to jail while their radical counter-parts get more recruits they can turn to violence. 
    Worst of all is the sheer waste of time, treasure and blood, when people are still dying of AIDS, straving and in need of clean water.  The planet’s oceans are neglected while the coral reefs fail.  The litany is too long to list.
    And you are right about the waste in Iraq itself. We failed gravely to bring order, which is the simple but always neccesary pre-requisite to law.  The whole of Baghdad has been reduced to a kind of pre-WW 2 level of services ( not to even try to count the human and familial costs) from which it well may take 50 to 75 years to recover.   Sarajevo is still blighted and forgotten. 
    The shame of all of this is that we, Americans, seem not able to have a serious, non-shouting discussion about what to do now.  I hope this election cycle will produce a high level of introspection and discourse.  The world needs humble and generous leadership, not our greed and selfish ambition.

  8. AE
    Posted February 18, 2007 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Good post…

    A few days ago I replied to a blog by Miguel de Icaza from the Mono fame on the same topic, i.e. Iran, the country in which I live! I think it’s worth linking to it here.

    If you think Bush is the only bad guy in this conflict you’re absolutely wrong. You can’t find any moral/national “causes of Iranian intransigence toward American foreign policy dictates”, as you put it. The nuclear issue for the Iranian regime is simply a means for prolonging the existence of their undemocratic and trouble making regime! For the people of Iran it’s a matter of short term national pride, caused by propaganda!

    Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t approve of war, and I believe it won’t happen (read my reply to Miguel), but what I approve of is to feel responsible and to push Iranians for change, to get rid of this regime. I even view Mr. Bush with some respect (although he messed it up completely after the war!). At least he wanted to do something about this messy region! Although he fucked it up completely. But he did something, at least. I love this “fuck war” attitude, I hate this “fuck war, leave those horrible people alone in their misery, just don’t mess with us” attitude. Believe me, you can “cause” change. Do it! Be responsible! Use the powers you have! Use the diplomatic/economic/… powers! There’s no need for a war….

    Btw regarding Dollar hegemony and what Saddam did to threaten it as noted by David, it’s totally bullshit of course! Totally exaggerated! Ask any credible economist! Or just research on wto.org and compare the few billions of dollars of Iraq’s oil revenue to the total amount of international trade. Now if I recall correctly 1/14 of international trade is energy. That’s something, but consider Iraq’s share in that, not considerable. Now if you think Bush attacked Iraq to empty Iraqi pockets and get rich think again, because it does not make sense to spend 300+ billions (and counting) to conquer a country which won’t be able to make as much money in two decades!! It only makes sense when you want to fix a volatile and troubled region like middle east… alas it didn’t happen.


  9. Posted February 18, 2007 at 8:36 pm | Permalink


    I think you’re mis-representing my point of view on this. No one is under any illusions that the current Iranian regime is anything but a dictatorial theocracy. That, however, does not justify breaking international law and provoking a war of choice, which is what is being discussed. Of COURSE the US should be using any and all diplomatic means at its disposal to reduce hostilities in the region and encourage democratic reform in Iran. I don’t think you will have found statements made by me on this blog saying that war is never an option. Yes, it is always wrong, but it may also be justified. It is that calculation which the Bush Administration either willfully or through incompetence screwed up in Iraq and I fear that they will again fail to make in the case of Iran.

    From what I’ve read of the lead-up to the Iraq War, I think that at the highest levels of US government there really was a sense that the invasion of Iraq would be quick, cheap, and mostly bloodless. And that’s to say nothing of the reconstruction. Of course, anyone who had actually paid attention to the situation knew that couldn’t possibly be true, and that’s where the Administration will be found wanting by history: it simply didn’t care to know. That ignorance combined with a world-view which completely ignored the region’s history led the US into an un-winnable occupation. To make the argument that the only way the US’s actions make sense is in the context of some larger plan to democratize the middle east might seem attractive, but that’s only because it’s the only way left to draw the lines from point A to point B. It seems that many of the primary actors in this story weren’t acting rationally. Given that backdrop, it also seems foolhardy to assume that they are currently acting sensibly or will do so in the future.

    I know that it seems completely ludicrous to think that ideology and ignorance could drive the world’s only super-power to this point, but what else could? Were region-wide change the goal, one can imagine hundreds if not thousands of ways in which past and current Bush Administration policy is flawed and failing. Simply put, it’s no longer possible to chart the Administration’s policy on the axes of rational explinations.

    Sadly, this sounds much like many of the region’s other actors.


  10. AE
    Posted February 19, 2007 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    Alex, I wasn’t misrepresenting you. What you have written makes complete sense. My words were about the trends I see, not your point of view exactly.

    You see, the trends I see now are:
    – We were a foul to think democracy would fix this region. These people simply are not ready for it. It’s become even dangerous to deal with democratically elected volatile and hard line governments of this region. You know what, actually it is correct! To make it work you have to teach and protect it! I welcome this pragmatism/realism that I currently see. What I have great fear of is to give up completely and revert back to the old malfunctioning status que. But there are many people who think that’s what should be done. Those who advocate talking to Iran and accept it as is are among this group. It’s this sissy “give up, we can’t fix it, leave them alone” attitude/trend that I hate!
    – Another trend I see is the war trend. Some people say we can’t prevent Iran from getting the bomb unless we go to war with it. I don’t subscribe to this point of view, but I do agree that a nuclear theocracy is a complete disaster and utterly dangerous. But remember, those who advocate this war advocate it to just “prevent” the regime to get the bomb. In the end it won’t cause any change for the Iranian people. This prevention won’t bring democracy or human rights for them. In other words it’s a “give up, we can’t fix it, leave them alone, but prevent them to get the bomb by bombing them” attitude, which is not much different from the first one above!

    You see both camps have given up to some extent and want to preserve some kind of status que! That’s horrible dude! Imho even worse than what Bush has done!! I’d like to see a more pragmatic yet more responsible attitude. Both of these extreme attitudes are dangerous. Hopefully we won’t fall to these extremes and I’m positive we won’t….


  11. Posted February 20, 2007 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    OTM FOR EVAR!  On The Media is also one of my favorites (although its hard to beat This American Life and Wait Wait.)  I like it when Brook Gladstone beats up on a guest just because she can.  It makes me feel like there’s someone in journalism that still has a damned spine.

  12. Kit Russell
    Posted February 21, 2007 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Re: AE’s comments
    Finding the middle way, will involve ignoring both those voices that call for a larger war with Iran and those who want to throw in the towel in Iraq.  I think that there is no turning back the clock to the status quo.  Our presence in Iraq has forever changed the region’s politics.  We need to see how to create a vibrant Dissaggregation strategy as advocated by George Packer, in his seminal New Yorker article, ” Know The Enemy” 12-18-06. David Kilcullen’s idea is to sort out who is radical from who is not, and address these groups differently.  In Iran there are still many moderates who could be peeled away from the Ayattollahs.  The NYT is reporting that we are  quietly talking to reasonable elements in Iran.  We need much more of this kind of thinking.  
    Today’s sad headline in Iraq has to do with the heated sectarian reaction  to a rape case, allegedly of a Sunni woman by three  Shiite policemen, who was rescued by American soldiers.  Our overly meek response, that we are “investigating” the incident, once more gives the radicals a field day.  America needs to firmly stand up for justice (not snap judgments, but the rule of law).  Letting radical media and sectarian charges time and time again take hold of the information battlefield will ultimately lead to our defeat by the insurgents around the globe. 
     We need to get a backbone and find our voice.  Our past horrendous mistakes must be acknowlegded ( Abu Gharib and revenge slayings by US soldiers), BUT they must not keep us from trying to establish lasting justice today, one day at a time. 

One Trackback

  1. […] Nonetheless, it continued to bug me. And then, when I sat down to read Alex Russell’s blog I happened upon this post detailing his approach to voting: Despite all of that, however, I vote every chance I get. Jennifer and I study for elections, usually reserving most of a weekend beforehand to pore over the hundred-plus pages of voter information booklets that get shipped to every California voter. We spend time researching, trying to pick the best person for the job, peering through the morass of private interest and political machinations and not always coming away feeling like we really understand all that’s at stake. I’ve never voted a straight party ticket in my life, mostly because I don’t think anyone really has all the answers. I expect my elected representatives to duke it out to a good compromise. I want the kind of slow, deliberative government that leaves everyone slightly bruised and no-one very happy. […]